Black Belt - - SCREEN SHOTS - ABOUT THE AU­THOR: Dave Lowry has trained ex­ten­sively in the Ja­panese and Ok­i­nawan mar­tial arts. He’s writ­ten for Black Belt since 1986.

It’s a mis­take — a se­ri­ous one, even though it is un­der­stand­able — to dis­miss pre­ar­ranged spar­ring as a ster­ile, un­nec­es­sary as­pect of karate train­ing.

I used the word “un­der­stand­able” be­cause if you don’t have a re­al­is­tic per­spec­tive on the place of pre­ar­ranged spar­ring in the dojo, it can seem fake. You bow and take a stance. The at­tacker is­sues a strike that you both know is com­ing, and you re­spond with a block and counter. Re­al­life al­ter­ca­tions are sel­dom that neatly ar­ranged. Free spar­ring seems more spon­ta­neous and nat­u­ral. There’s no des­ig­nated at­tacker or de­fender, and the par­tic­i­pants freely switch roles. It feels more au­then­tic.

To be sure, spar­ring with­out a script has some ad­van­tages. There are also se­vere lim­i­ta­tions. Stresses in­tro­duced by the dan­gers of free ex­changes can lead you to nar­row the range of your tech­niques. You tend to fo­cus on moves with which you’re com­fort­able. You don’t ex­pand your reper­toire. In free spar­ring, you pol­ish what you’re al­ready com­pe­tent with and ig­nore your weak­nesses.

In con­trast, when the sce­nario is laid out, when you know what at­tacks will come and how you’re ex­pected to re­spond, you can be forced to em­ploy tech­niques you’d other­wise ig­nore. You strengthen and broaden your reper­toire. Fur­ther­more, within the struc­ture of pre­ar­ranged spar­ring, there’s an op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore many av­enues of karate that nor­mally would be closed.

In Ja­panese, pre­ar­ranged spar­ring is called yaku­soku ku­mite. Yaku­soku means “agree­ment.” There are sev­eral ver­sions of this, in­clud­ing one-, two- and three-step ku­mite. An in­ter­est­ing vari­a­tion is happo ku­mite. Happo means “eight di­rec­tions,” but its con­no­ta­tion here is “many.”

HAPPO: Place your­self in the mid­dle of mul­ti­ple at­tack­ers — four is a good num­ber. Be­gin with clear di­rec­tions: The first op­po­nent will ex­e­cute a front kick that you must avoid or

No mat­ter which style of karate you fa­vor, the ad­vice of­fered here will im­prove your un­der­stand­ing of your art, not to men­tion your per­for­mance in the dojo. — Ed­i­tors

When the sce­nario is laid out, when you know what at­tacks will come and how you’re ex­pected to re­spond, you can be forced to em­ploy tech­niques you’d other­wise ig­nore.

block, af­ter which you counter. The sec­ond op­po­nent pro­ceeds with a face-level punch that you must deal with the same way: block and counter. And so on. Ev­ery­one should be clear on the se­quence.

The at­tacks are lim­ited. The re­sponses can be any­thing you, the per­son in the cen­ter, wish. The sec­ond at­tacker doesn’t be­gin un­til the �irst at­tack and counter are com­pleted. All move­ments are slow and fo­cused but with­out power. In a real sense, this is chore­og­ra­phy, like re­hears­ing a movie �ight scene.

Stop there, at that level, and the bene�its of happo ku­mite are lim­ited. This is only the start, how­ever. Once you have the moves down, speed up the se­quences. At­tacks should come faster, and the in­ter­vals be­tween at­tacks should be­come shorter. As soon as you counter the �irst at­tack, the sec­ond one is launched. You’re forced to re­spond more quickly.

At an even higher level, the at­tack­ers choose their own tech­niques. They also can change up the se­quence, vary­ing who at­tacks �irst so you can never know from which di­rec­tion the next as­sault will come.

A bene�it of happo ku­mite isn’t im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous, but it’s im­por­tant. The at­tack­ers, rather than be­ing just mo­bile punch­ing bags for you, play an es­sen­tial role be­cause no mat­ter how good you are, you can be over­whelmed by mul­ti­ple op­po­nents com­ing from dif­fer­ent an­gles. If the at­tack­ers be­come thought­less or too ag­gres­sive, they’ll force you to �lail about — or just cower. At this point, you’re learn­ing noth­ing be­cause you’re not en­gag­ing in the train­ing.

If, how­ever, the at­tack­ers are par­tic­i­pat­ing thought­fully, they can play a con­struc­tive role. They need to grad­u­ate their strength and power care­fully, press­ing you with­out de­stroy­ing your spirit or com­pro­mis­ing your tech­nique. The at­tack­ers need to be con­stantly en­gaged, eval­u­at­ing you, push­ing you to im­prove with­out go­ing too far. In fact, they can learn as much as you can from this kind of train­ing. They learn to ob­serve, to sense your mind­set. Even though the roles of at­tacker and de­fender seem at odds, both sides are work­ing to­gether, each learn­ing valu­able lessons.


At­ten­tion! Use ex­treme cau­tion when at­tempt­ing this drill.

Be­gin by hav­ing your part­ner step for­ward with his right foot while aim­ing a punch at your ch­est. Step back with your right foot, tak­ing a left-leg-for­ward stance. While do­ing that, use your left arm to make a mi­dlevel block that de�lects his punch to your right. At the same time, pull your right �ist back to your hip. Next, shuf�le for­ward, main­tain­ing a left for­ward stance, and de­liver a right re­verse punch to his mid­sec­tion.

If you’ve prac­ticed karate for long, you’ve prob­a­bly worked this com­bi­na­tion a thou­sand times — per­haps so of­ten that it’s hard-wired into you. You don’t nor­mally think about it, but let’s do that for a mo­ment.

Why do you step back? What if you step into the at­tack? When you step back, the dis­tance is such that your left fore­arm, in the block, strikes your op­po­nent’s at­tack­ing limb along the fore­arm. This is help­ful in train­ing. Fore­arms are rel­a­tively tough, and part­ners can move back and forth across the �loor strik­ing and block­ing. Be­gin­ners may ex­pe­ri­ence some sore­ness and bruises the next day, but more ex­pe­ri­enced karateka will be �ine.

If you step for­ward to make your block, how­ever, that ideal dis­tance changes. Your ver­ti­cal fore­arm will strike your op­po­nent’s el­bow. Now, we all know that “block­ing” is a mis­nomer in karate, a poor trans­la­tion of ukeru, which means “to re­ceive.” Mov­ing for­ward and strik­ing the el­bow with your block does a lot more than re­di­rect your op­po­nent’s at­tack. It does dam­age, per­haps se­vere, to the at­tack­ing arm. It’s meant to in­jure.

When you step back to make the re­ceiv­ing move­ment, the rel­a­tive dis­tance stays the same. Test this, and you’ll see that you re­di­rect the punch away from you — but you do lit­tle to take his bal­ance. This is a se­ri­ous �law in teach­ing move­ments we de­scribe as block­ing. Of­ten, they do lit­tle more than re­di­rect the weapon, in this case his �ist. But if he has the abil­ity to re­or­ga­nize, he’ll do so in­stantly. He can even use the force of your de�lec­tion to �low into a new at­tack.

Block­ing is a de­fen­sive move­ment. It’s play­ing catch-up, hop­ing to �ind an open­ing to make a counter. Step­ping back re­in­forces this mind­set. When you step in and use your fore­arm to strike your op­po­nent’s el­bow, you’re de�lect­ing his at­tack. You’re also de­stroy­ing the weapon.

Why not teach this? Be­cause it’s dan­ger­ous. In­tro­duce it in a typ­i­cal dojo with 10 pairs of karateka, and very quickly you’ll have el­bows bro­ken, dis­lo­cated and sprained. If you’re go­ing to ex­per­i­ment with this, you need to know your op­po­nent’s skill level, his at­ti­tude and his men­tal­ity.

One of the lamest clichés in the mar­tial arts is “My art is so deadly I can’t even demon­strate it.” No, it isn’t that karate, at a high level, is too deadly. It’s that prac­ti­tion­ers, even at a rel­a­tively high level, are still too un­de­pend­able to be able to en­gage in it at full speed and power with­out ex­er­cis­ing ex­treme care.

CAVEAT: I’m not sug­gest­ing that step­ping back in the face of an at­tack is al­ways in­fe­rior. It can be very ef­fec­tive, par­tic­u­larly if you use your hips. Once again, how­ever, un­less the train­ing is care­ful and con­trolled, some­one’s go­ing to get hurt. And once again, block­ing, in the sense of us­ing your fore­arm to de�lect the op­po­nent’s strike at his own fore­arm, is not the in­tent.

When you’re re­treat­ing, a block­ing move­ment is bet­ter em­ployed as a pulling mo­tion. Think not so much about mov­ing back but about mak­ing a hole into which you’re draw­ing your op­po­nent. He’s ex­tend­ing an at­tack; you’re en­coun­ter­ing it and pulling him — hard. Your fore­arm slides down from the ini­tial po­si­tion and brings your hand on top of his wrist, pro­vid­ing the grip you need. Your pull can­not be gen­tle; it needs to yank him off-bal­ance. It isn’t a straight-line pull; the mo­tion draws his arm so it crosses his own cen­ter, fur­ther de­stroy­ing his equi­lib­rium.

When a per­son at­tacks with full com­mit­ment, only to have you sud­denly re­treat, tak­ing the at­tack­ing arm with you and redi­rect­ing the force of the punch across his body, it’s like grab­bing the han­dle of a heavy open door, only to have it sud­denly slam shut. It jerks you with it in a di­rec­tion that comes close to tak­ing you off your feet.

This move­ment doesn’t take a lot of power. You can gen­er­ate terri�ic force with the sud­den move­ment of your hips as you step back. If you try to yank your op­po­nent with your arm, he can eas­ily feel your en­ergy and adapt to it. Avoid that by mak­ing the pull quick and strong, pow­ered by the large mus­cles in your hips.


Put this one in the “ob­scure” cat­e­gory of karate tech­niques. Kick­ing with the toes is no longer taught in most dojo; in others, it was never part of train­ing. There are a few Ja­panese karate sys­tems that teach these kicks. Mostly, how­ever, we as­so­ciate them with Ok­i­nawan karate.

The ob­vi­ous ques­tion is, Why? Most of us dis­like hard con­tact with the toes. Stub­bing a toe isn’t high on any­one’s “like” list. Fur­ther, the ball of the foot or the heel of­fer much more solid, much less po­ten­tially painful weapons, just as a closed �ist is a safer, more ef­fec­tive way to use your hand com­pared to strik­ing with the �in­ger­tips.

But think about the po­ten­tial of a strike in which all �ive �in­ger­tips are pressed to­gether, mak­ing a bird-beak shape. Such a strike de­liv­ered to the neck or an­other soft, nerverich tar­get is pow­er­ful and pen­e­trat­ing. The same ap­plies to toe kicks. If an op­po­nent is dou­bled over in front of you as a re­sult of your pre­vi­ous at­tack, a kick with the toes — espe­cially if you’re wear­ing shoes — that hits his di­aphragm or ab­domen can be dev­as­tat­ing.

Yes, but isn’t there a big dif­fer­ence be­tween toe kick­ing while wear­ing shoes and toe kick­ing with bare feet? There is. To kick ef­fec­tively with the toes re­quires a lot of train­ing. Chances are if you’re an ex­pe­ri­enced karateka, as soon as you lift your knee to kick for­ward, your toes curl back, ex­pos­ing the ball of your foot. A toe kick re­quires you to keep your toes straight and your en­tire foot par­al­lel to the ground. Your lower leg doesn’t hinge up from the knee. In­stead, it goes straight out, de­liv­er­ing the toes on tar­get in a line rather than a ris­ing arc.

Some Ok­i­nawan sys­tems teach kick­ing with only the big toe. Others in­volve squeez­ing the �irst and sec­ond toes to­gether to form a delta-shaped weapon. In ei­ther case, the tech­nique re­quires a lot of train­ing, stretch­ing and strength­en­ing of the mus­cles of the foot.

Toe kicks are usu­ally de­liv­ered to­ward the lower half of your op­po­nent’s body, al­though some karateka cham­ber their knee high enough to drive their toes into their foe’s ribs or be­low his ster­num. Such tech­niques can be ef­fec­tive against any tar­get that has nerves close to the sur­face. For ex­am­ple, grap­pling locks that ex­tend a cap­tured arm, pulling an op­po­nent so he’s bent over, ex­pose the in­side of the up­per arm to a toe kick that can tem­po­rary par­a­lyze the en­tire limb. Toes driven into the in­side of the knee or the area just above it can take a per­son to the ground with a com­bi­na­tion of pain and nerve paral­y­sis. Toe kicks di­rected at the thigh can dis­rupt nor­mal nerve func­tions, mak­ing a per­son col­lapse.

There’s some­thing about toe kicks that looks odd to the av­er­age karateka. To see such moves im­ple­mented by a skilled prac­ti­tioner, how­ever, with the toes driv­ing into soft �lesh with the po­ten­tial for in­jury to or­gans or joints, is to see why one way of de­scrib­ing them in Ja­panese is ashi-yari, or “foot spear.”

HIS­TORY: Sto­ries about toe kicks abound in Ok­i­nawan karate. Some are al­most cer­tainly in the realm of leg­end, while others have a ground­ing in his­tor­i­cal fact. One of the lat­ter in­volves An­kichi Arakaki (1899-1927), who was fa­mous for toe kick­ing. On at least two oc­ca­sions, he used the tech­nique, once while spar­ring with his brother and once in a �ight with a renowned prac­ti­tioner of Ok­i­nawan wrestling. In the �irst en­counter, An­kichi aimed his kick at his brother’s an­kle. In the sec­ond, a �ight that sup­pos­edly took place in a bar and was one An­kichi did his best to avoid, the tar­get was just be­low the wrestler’s armpit. Both men suf­fered symp­toms that re­sem­bled those of an aneurysm. The wrestler ac­tu­ally died within a few days.

Ho­han So­ken (1889-1982) was per­haps the most pro�icient Ok­i­nawan karate ex­pert who used the toe kick. His white­crane sys­tem, with soft (look­ing), �low­ing moves, still teaches toe kicks. They’re of­ten com­bined with move­ments that un­bal­ance the at­tacker, caus­ing him to drop his guard or per­haps open it, thus al­low­ing pen­e­tra­tion with a toe kick.


The spin­ning heel kick is one of the most artis­tic mar­tial moves. It looks grace­ful and gen­er­ates tremen­dous power. Re­cently, some MMA �ighters have worked to per­fect their spin­ning kick be­cause it hits like a base­ball bat. Op­po­nents are knocked down or com­pletely out when the heel con­nects.

The ori­gin of the spin­ning heel kick is hard to de­ter­mine. The move is an ex­trav­a­gance of en­ergy. It re­quires you to turn your back on your op­po­nent. It’s most ef­fec­tive against the head. All these ar­gue for not in­clud­ing it in the ar­se­nal of a com­bat­ive art de­signed pri­mar­ily for real �ight­ing. It ap­peared most promi­nently in taek­wondo when the art be­came pop­u­lar in the 1960s and ’70s. As the style be­came more wide­spread, the spin­ning kick be­came more so­phis­ti­cated.

Most of us dis­like hard con­tact with the toes. Stub­bing a toe isn’t high on any­one’s “like” list. Fur­ther, the ball of the foot or the heel of­fer much more solid, much less po­ten­tially painful weapons.

Early free-style per­cus­sive arts with open, full-con­tact matches had lit­tle use for the spin­ning heel kick, mainly for the rea­sons men­tioned above. As those arts con­tin­ued to grow, how­ever, they be­gan to in­cor­po­rate the tech­nique. The power it of­fered was too great to ig­nore, which is why MMA prac­ti­tion­ers have started im­ple­ment­ing it.

The spin­ning heel kick was never in the reper­toire of Ja­panese karate, and it’s im­por­tant for us to think about why that is. The Ja­panese com­bat arts have among their core prin­ci­ples one known as kime. In the dojo, kime is of­ten trans­lated as “fo­cus.” In every­day Ja­panese, kime (or its in­dica­tive form kimeru) means “to de­cide.”

In a punch, kime is the ex­act point at which all en­ergy is di­rected, ex­tended, fo­cused. In an art that in­volves throw­ing, kime comes the mo­ment your op­po­nent’s bal­ance has been com­pro­mised so com­pletely he can­not re­sist. Ap­ply fo­cus, and the throw is ef­fected at that very mo­ment. Kime is that cru­cial point at which the in­tent of the tech­nique is put into a de­ci­sive ac­tion.

Tech­niques like the spin­ning heel kick do not have kime. The ex­tended leg is ro­tat­ing; where the heel con­tacts the tar­get is not pre­cise. For that rea­son, the kick wasn’t part of tra­di­tional Ja­panese karate.

TWO POINTS: First, to say that the spin­ning heel kick doesn’t have kime is not to say it’s in­ef­fec­tive. Too of­ten karate prac­ti­tion­ers de­velop an ar­ro­gance, a be­lief that theirs is the ul­ti­mate art. To be fair, prac­ti­tion­ers of other arts de­velop the same delu­sions, but the point is that any �ight- ing art can be ef­fec­tive and dan­ger­ous and that you should never judge that po­ten­tial by ap­ply­ing the stan­dards of your own art.

Sec­ond, the un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ples of your art are there for a rea­son. They give struc­ture. With­out that frame­work, you can­not build your own sys­tem.

If you have ac­cess to a li­brary of karate books, you can see that, back in the early ’80s, some Ja­panese karate schools be­gan to in­cor­po­rate the spin­ning heel kick into their cur­ricu­lum. I have a text on what was then called “Korean karate” from the late ’60s, and one of the tech­niques it il­lus­trates is the “hook kick.” The ear­li­est ref­er­ence I have of a sim­i­lar kick in Ja­panese karate was not un­til the mid-’80s, and the ex­pla­na­tion for it is mud­dled. Clearly, the au­thors had seen the Korean spin­ning heel kick, rec­og­nized its use­ful­ness and tried to in­cor­po­rate it. They couldn’t rec­on­cile its ex­e­cu­tion, how­ever, with the prin­ci­ples of their art, par­tic­u­larly the prin­ci­ple of kime.

Of course, the pos­si­bil­ity ex­ists that some ded­i­cated karateka will �ig­ure out a way to ex­e­cute the spin­ning heel kick so it al­lows for the proper ma­nip­u­la­tion of kime. Prin­ci­ples give a �ight­ing art struc­ture, but they shouldn’t squeeze it into a box. That’s why karate is not the closed tra­di­tion many be­lieve it to be. It can grow and change, so long as the prin­ci­ples are main­tained.

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